Four-time Pebble winner Phil Mickelson hit a ridiculous 311-yard drive into the wind on the 72nd hole of his week on Sunday at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Then he tried to pull off an impossible shot from there to get up and down from 218 yards away. He failed to do it, hitting it in the bunker instead. For the second straight week he needed to hole out for eagle on the 18th hole on Sunday from a preposterous position to have a chance at a playoff. He made par.
And yet, that par represented a T2 on the week, his first runner-up finish since the 2016 Open Championship, when he lost to Henrik Stenson at Royal Troon. He finished three strokes behind winner Ted Potter Jr. on Sunday. It was the first time in five years he’s had back-to-back top-five finishes at PGA Tour events. It also underscores the somewhat infamous fact that Mickelson has still not win since 2013. To put that in further perspective, he’s won less recently than Tiger Woods.
Phil Mickelson finished T-5 last week. He has not had consecutive top-5 finishes on the PGA Tour since the summer of 2013 (consecutive runner-ups in Memphis and the U.S. Open).
— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGC) February 11, 2018
Phil Mickelson: 7th runner-up finish since last worldwide win (2013 Open)
— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGC) February 11, 2018
I’m not here to discuss the past but rather what’s behind Mickelson’s resurgence in recent weeks. That deft top-five showing at the Waste Management Phoenix Open last week, followed by the Pebble runner up, totals 286 golfers faced with Mickelson losing to just five of them.
“I’ve played very similarly all four weeks, but I’ve had much better results these last two,” he noted after Pebble Beach. “By simply kind of getting out of my own way. By that I mean not worrying so much about technique and start getting into the rounds. Playing and hitting shots, having fun and trusting all the work that I’ve put in the past a couple years getting my technique where I want it.”
Why, at age 47, is Mickelson able to truly contend following a 2017 West Coast swing that was bumpy at best (he didn’t have a single top 10 and had just one top 15)? Mickelson said before the year that he just wants to be average off the tee. If he can be average with his drive he can win. So has he? Well no, he hasn’t. Lefty currently ranks No. 178 on the PGA Tour in strokes gained off the tee.
However, over his last two events, he has been better. Of the 10 measured rounds Mickelson has played in 2018, three have resulted in a positive strokes gained number off the tee. Those three rounds, unsurprisingly, have coincided with his top-five finishes. He even finished with an overall positive average at Pebble. That is, Mickelson was better with his driver than the average golfer in the Pebble Beach field. That for him is, well, it’s kind of astonishing.
“Certainly when I drive it well I’m playing to the strength of my game, which is my iron play,” he said. “But distance is also a factor, too. I’ve really had to increase speed to hang with a lot of the younger guys. And fortunately I’ve been able to increase my club head speed about four miles an hour. So although I’m not going to be with the longest guys out here, I’m in the top third again, and I feel like I can compete from there.”
Mickelson currently ranks 43rd on the PGA Tour in distance at 304.1 yards a pop. This was evident in the bomb he dropped on the 18th on Sunday when he needed something big.
The other part of this, though, is that he’s putting out of his mind. Mickelson ranks No. 5 on the PGA Tour in strokes gained putting, which would be his best ranking since, what do you know, 2013 (the last time he won). He also had a lights-out putting year in 2016 when he had six top-10 finishes and three runners up.
This is the Mickelson formula, too. Drive it slightly better or slightly worse than average, do everything exceptionally well (especially putt), collect trophies. Rinse, repeat.
The only part that is eye-opening is that Mickelson is able to maintain this even as he nears 50. Nobody doubts that he’s one of the best to ever tee it up — I’ve made claims that he’s one of the 10 best golfers ever. But your putting and your short game are supposed to evaporate as more candles are inserted into your annual birthday cake. Mickelson somehow seems to be going the opposite way. He’ll try and continue that this week at the Genesis Open among an elite field.
“Riviera is a great ball-striker’s golf course,” said Mickelson. “And if you drive it well there, the second shot is where Riviera thrives and challenges you. I’m driving it as well as I have in a long time, and if I continue to strike it the way I have, it’s going to be another good week. And I can’t wait to get started.”
I don’t know if this can last or, if it can, for how long. But Lefty seems to have found something that works against the game’s best. Following a year in which he got into contention often but faded late and didn’t notch a single top-five finish, this has been a revelation.
A win should probably follow, but only if Mickelson can maintain this pace.